Dealing with Hyper-Connected Youth

Are my kids' always-plugged-in habits damaging them?

Posted Apr 16, 2012

Dear Dr. Alasko: Our two sons, ages 9 and 13, love technology. My husband is himself a computer geek so he thinks it's great. He says the more they know the better equipped they'll be for their future. But I worry about the human side of their lives. For instance, when they're together with their friends, all of them seem to be looking at their gadgets and doing very little talking. I worry that they won't be able to form healthy adult relationships and bond with their own children—except maybe through technology.

Dear Reader: You’re right to be worried. We don't yet know whether there are permanent developmental problems when children have constant access to fast-moving technology.

At this point the experts in neuronal development seem divided. About half are optimistic, believing that electronically connected youth will have the advantage of being nimble analysts and fast decisions makers. Others are pessimistic, worrying that hyper-connected young people are too distracted by constant input to have deep-thinking capabilities. In addition, these scientists worry that the constantly-connected are becoming unable to retain information—and even train their brains to remember things—because every bit of information they might need at any time is instantly available to them on their phones.

Then there's the question of face-to-face relationship skills, including the ability to focus on emotional issues.

My personal concern is that kids who grow up completely immersed in the electronic connectivity of video games, texting and ear-buds will not be capable of the extended focus required to deal with the complex world of emotional issues—the kind of focus that every adult relationship requires.

There's a physiological analogy to misuse of our vision. If we do a lot of reading in dim light as children, our eyes strain to see the tiny printed words, and in response our eyeballs actually become enlarged. This condition leads to a lifetime of extreme myopia.

It seems logical to suppose that if a child's growing brain is subjected to constant fast-moving images and scattered input from video games, instantly-appearing texts, etc., the child's brain will lose the ability to remain focused on any single issue or flow of information beyond a few seconds in length.

From the psychological point of view, the issue of "deep-thinking capabilities" is the biggest area of concern.

I’ve recently read numerous articles about how we are apparently losing our ability to engage in long-term thinking, the kind that occurs when, for instance, a person spends a few hours walking in a forest. During extended periods of rest (without media) the brain automatically sorts things out on its own. We can "think through" complex problems.

Supporting this idea is the fact that we must have periods of deep sleep. Only during REM sleep does our brain recalibrate and settle down. If we consistently interrupt REM sleep the person develops a kind of psychosis. And prior to that, people whose sleep is disturbed experiences lessened accuracy of memory and thought processes, lower immune system response and, often, more frequent depression.

As I said earlier, you’re right to be worried. The goal would be to achieve a balanced, moderate use of technology. But promoting these behaviors in your technology-dominant family will be difficult.

 However, if you strongly believe in the wisdom of moderation, your belief—along with some commonsense communication about it and enforcement of limits to daily and weekly exposure—should provide the energy to effect meaningful change.

About the Author

Carl Alasko

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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